HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ Breakout Star Quincy Isaiah Dishes on Playing the Great Magic Johnson

Quincy-Isaiah
Image: Warrick Page/HBO.

Fans of the controversial HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty have fallen in love with newcomer Quincy Isaiah’s portrayal of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Capturing the essence of a Laker as iconic and beloved as Magic Johnson can’t be easy, but you can’t tell with Isaiah. While Isaiah favors Magic, smile and all, his success in portraying him is due to more than an uncanny resemblance. As unbelievable as it sounds, Isaiah captures young Magic’s spirit and essence. And that the fellow Michigan native tells EBONY he owes to circumstance.

“I think [it’s] just that Midwest presence of trying to be as authentic as possible, but while still being friendly and welcoming. And just being able to see that transition of coming from a smaller town where it’s a closer-knit community and then moving to this big city where it’s a lot of different people, where you don’t have family around anymore. I can definitely relate to all of that. So, it was very easy in a way to slip into the mindset of a 20-year-old moving from Michigan to Los Angeles,” he explains. 

Isaiah’s “Magic” moment just came through acting. “I actually came out to LA to audition for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in May of my senior year, and I got it,” he reveals. The financial hardships of living in L.A., however, didn’t give him the luxury of just studying acting. Eventually, after landing roles in student and short films, Isaiah got an agent who sent him out on auditions and, unbelievably, Magic Johnson was the first role he landed.

As a kid, Isaiah admits to not knowing how to make his acting dream come true. “It was something I always wanted to do, but I just never really could see how I could do it. It was always something that felt very far off and not realistic to me,” he confesses. “But I did a musical in high school and that allowed me to get my feet wet.”

“But it was in college [coincidentally Kalamazoo College just a stone’s throw from where Magic was born and raised and rose to greatness] when I started taking acting classes and did an improv comedy show and then I did a couple plays,” he continues. “And, when I did the plays, that’s when I was like, ‘Yo, I want to do this forever. I don’t care at what capacity. I just know that this helps me release something in me, and I just really enjoy being able to be vulnerable like that. I’m going to push myself and challenge myself and dive deeper into it.’”

Later, one of those plays convinced him he was also leading man material. “Being able to do A Raisin in the Sun in college did wonders for my self-esteem, my acting, just everything,” he says. Assuming the role of the late great Sidney Poitier’s iconic Walter Lee Younger sent Isaiah on an incredible journey. “After I saw that, I went back and watched him in In the Heat of the Night and Lilies of the Field. And just seeing who he was and how he got into acting—and everything just kept leading to the next thing and I just wanted to learn more.”

Isaiah admits to initially feeling the pressure of playing the NBA Hall of Famer who, among others, has objected to not being consulted for the series. “Understanding the role that I’m playing and understanding the expectations and who I’m doing it alongside, all of that, it was just a lot,” he confesses.

One of the most layered relationships in the series is that the once notorious playboy has with his now wife, the former Earleatha “Cookie” Kelly. It’s one he and actress Tamera Tomakili, who portrays her, have worked hard to develop off-screen, he shares. “Us building a friendship, like a family feel, going on hikes together, going out to eat, just really understanding who we are as people [allows us to] bring that on set with us and really tell this story of this power couple, at such a young age, when there’s so much life to be had. And what that looks like and how they’re building a love for each other that’s bigger than any physical [connection]. It’s an intimacy there that they have for each other while still being able to be friends. I think it’s cool to see that and how that forms,” he adds.

Despite the ongoing outcry from the NBA great himself, whose official docuseries They Call Me Magic is currently streaming on Apple TV+, and other Lakers, Winning Time has secured a second season. That says Isaiah means that the writers will continue to “really dive into some deeper stuff” to continue telling this story he views as “such a good American story that’s told in a way that’s really important.”

Season one of the HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty ends Sunday, May 8, but can be binged on either HBO or HBO Max. 

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.

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